“You got to get to the essence of a thing to know it,” a wily mechanic named Delmar tells an unseen interviewer in Kenley Smith’s Devil Sedan. “You get down to a man’s heart, nothin’ else, you know the score.”
The riveting ride provided by Smith’s taut script and Playhouse Nashville’s seamless production certainly knows the score when it comes to providing a top-quality theatrical experience. Yes, there’s plenty of food for thought, but all involved understand that without generating the electricity that is theater’s currency engaging drama is little better than dry debate.
Devil Sedan is making its Nashville debut, but the play already has a strong pedigree – for starters, it took top honors in the 2008 Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights at Virginia’s historic, Tony Award-winning Barter Theatre. The drama is part of a trilogy written by Smith, who relocated from Roanoke, Va., to the Music City last year after spending time as an Ingram playwright-in-residence at Tennessee Repertory Theatre.
This contemporary story is set in the South, though the universality of the piece is underscored in the script; the playwright says this play could occur in “any place where darkness and light wage war in the hearts of men.”
The darkness and light are largely embodied in Devil Sedan by a booze-soaked ne’er-do-well named Bobby Pence (Tony Morton) and his world-weary older brother Harleigh (David Chattam) as well as oh-so-close teenagers Elea Whelan (Rosemary Fossee) and Maggie Thaxton (Kristin McCalley). An encounter between the brothers and the young women one night leads to a horrific crime and a divided community; the unraveling of what actually happened provides suspense while questioning our preconceived notions about the characters and the society that fosters those notions.
While there’s plenty of suspense amid the probe of faith and duty, there are also some well-aimed send-ups; modern fire-and-brimstone Minister Graves (Richard Daniel) shifts in the blinking of an eye from condemning “sodomites and naysayers, abortionists and liberals” to promoting a bake sale for the “Footsteps for Christ” youth group to which Whelan and Thaxton belong.
The 11-member cast features clearly-etched performances that serve the play’s dramatic moments and thematic threads well. Those sure-footed portrayals include Daniel’s sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God preacher, Rachel Agee’s miracle-seeking Lillian (counter-played nicely by Laura Crockarell’s seen-it-all Nurse), Phil Perry’s damaged Delmar, Andy Kanies’ duplicitous Lester Atkinson, Becky Wahlstrom’s vengeful Mrs. Whelan and Keri Pisapia’s forgiving Mrs. Thaxton.
Morton and Chattam beautifully manage the difficult balance between conflict and care that their sibling brothers must display in every word, look and gesture during their time together onstage. Both are veteran actors that certainly know how to make that balance believable, but it’s still the product of fully investing in each moment so that story and audience reap the dividends.
Fossee and McCalley are stunning as the two teens. Both are only a few years older than the characters they play, but that doesn’t mean they have an easy job fashioning these roles; it takes an artistic maturity rarely seen in actors of any age to make their flesh-and-blood portraits so real. These two don’t “comment” on their characters as more than a few actors do; they present them in their entirety for us to access and assess. Fossee’s heart-rending first scene – I bet you won’t hear the hymn “In the Garden” in future without remembering it – sets the bar high, and McCalley answers by joining her in the heights.
David Compton is well-known for his acting abilities, but his cleverly-dressed set – Compton has created what appear to be sections of broken stained-glass where the window grilles resemble rope – demonstrates for those unfamiliar with his work behind-the-scenes that his talents aren’t limited to performance. Mike Baum – who knows a thing or two about quality vocal sound – provides an excellent comprehensive sound design for this show (including a contribution from musician Eric Fritsch on a cover of “House of the Rising Sun” that helps set the mood nicely).
The sharp fight choreography of Eric D. Pasto-Crosby, the finger-on-the-pulse lighting of Katie Gant and the character-contained costuming of Hannah Schmidt are tied with other elements into a nice bow by Director Christopher R.C. Bosen. Bosen, Assistant Director Rebekah Durham, Stage Manager Mary Jo Weaver and Producer Nate Eppler complete as impressive an ensemble of artists and artisans as any group here can boast.
“It is how we deal with the least of us, the most despised of us, that marks the enlightenment of our civilization,” Mrs. Thaxton implores us to understand at one point in the play. To embrace that enlightenment takes more than reason’s sway, however; human compassion comes from hearts, not heads. Smith and Playhouse Nashville clearly understand that, and the ride they provide in their Devil Sedan is one every theater lover in town should take.
Playhouse Nashville presents Kenley Smith’s Devil Sedan though Aug. 11 in residence at Street Theatre Company (1933 Elm Hill Pk.). Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. each night except for Aug. 5. Tickets ($15) and more info are available by calling (615) 669-5792 or visiting www.playhousenashville.com.
*Photos by Britanie Knapp courtesy Playhouse Nashville.